A documentary about the Vanderbilt basketball star Perry Wallace, who integrated the Southeastern Conference, debuts Monday evening on campus. But the event has taken on a somber tone because Wallace died on Friday — just as his alma mater was marking the 50th anniversary of the breaking of a stubborn color barrier.
Vanderbilt chancellor Nick Zeppos calls Wallace a "civil rights icon" who quietly persevered jeers on the court around the South.
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Perry Wallace, who through quiet strength and courage blazed a trail that still serves as a lesson in resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles," Zeppos said in a written statement.
Wallace's story got a boost from a surprise best-selling biography called Strong Inside. Talking to All Things Considered in 2014, Wallace choked up recalling his final game at Vanderbilt, just after his mother passed away. He set a scoring record and ended with a slam dunk — which was against the rules at the time.
"That basically said, well, these segregation laws were illegal laws. They were the law, but they weren't just. And so this is what I think of all those unjust, illegal rules. There it is. Slam dunk.'"
Wallace grew up in North Nashville and played the trumpet at Pearl High School. After Vanderbilt, he went to law school and became a professor at American University.
On Saturday, Wallace was supposed to receive an award from the SEC at the conference football championship. His family says he died under hospice care in Maryland. He was 69 years old.